I’m turning 60 soon and I’m finally taking my gap year. I meant to do it sooner, at age 22 or 25, but I was too old back then and way too sure of everything.
I knew women who gallivanted off to Europe at age 18 or right after college. “Loose girls,” my mother would sniff. They were mostly the affluent girls at my private high school, the ones who drove their mothers’ Volvos and snuck smokes in the restroom.
I had a few things in common with my classmates in those days, like speech team, yearbook, National Honor Society and being Princeton-bound. But a gap, for me, was the two-hour break between my shift at Sears and my babysitting gig.
The guidance counselor’s office was filled with seductive brochures about youth hostels and Eurail passes. I fingered the shiny pages and stroked the pictures of smirking European boys, all of whom seemed to be dying for me to grab a backpack and hop a plane.
But I couldn’t figure out how to ask my parents. They were the first in their families to even dream of college. My mother was a college professor born to sharecroppers in Mississippi. She sent me out of my segregated neighborhood every day to an all-white, private school. “You’re going to learn everything they learn,” she said. Getting my education was my secret CIA mission.
The problem with being in the wrong life is that the only way to survive is to detach yourself.
My civil rights lawyer father survived his childhood in the Chicago slums by stealing food and shining shoes for pimps. “Gaps” for him were days between meals, weeks between safe shelters, and months between court dates.
How could I bring home a gap year brochure to these people who worked so hard, who sacrificed so much to make sure I wanted for nothing? How could I ask them for sailboats on the Aegean Sea or snowy Swiss chalets?
No. Instead, I kicked ass on my college boards and saved up my babysitting money. I finished college and landed a government job. I married a Navy officer, moved to California, and had a baby nine months later.
It was 1978, and I was a very good girl.
Then my twenties were over and my mother left me — the way she did most things — without warning. She dropped dead at the age of 57 without so much as a sniffle, cerebral hemorrhage, or a by-your-leave. She left me, still raw and bleeding from a divorce, with a six-year-old daughter, the eight- and nine-year-old nephews she’d been raising, her shocked husband, two dogs, a newly created community center, a half dozen homeless teens she was feeding, continual crisis on her community boards, and a partridge in a pear tree.
The clocks are dead but your life keeps ticking.
I moved back to Chicago permanently to tend to my father and I was blindsided by the sheer number of people and projects depending on her. She’d dropped her baton at my feet. And like a good girl, I picked it up and started running.
I was 33.
I ran, sometimes full-out and sometimes barely breathing, for the next 20 years. I married (and divorced) again, buried a child and gave birth to another, built a career and rebuilt a neighborhood, raised a family, learned to email, and elected a president.
I fed my wanderlust when I could: a road trip to the Badlands here, a weekend in Cancun there. I plotted out imaginary gap years while I cleaned up baby vomit or paid the ComEd. It could be Spain and Morocco. Brazil and Argentina. The Federated States of Micronesia.
I kept writing. Sometimes I stopped for weeks or months but it always came back to me, this heavy, hard block of cement in my gut that I couldn’t breathe through, eat through, or whiskey through. I could only write through it. Steinbeck said to just write every day and screw how it sounds, just keep going, and one day you’ll look up and have a novel. Where the hell’s my novel, John?
The problem with being in the wrong life is that the only way to survive is to detach yourself. You must stand behind the door and wait. You can’t just lie about how you feel and what you want; you also have to absorb the lie into your skin. You have to bolt it down with anchors and sink it, irretrievably, into your little grey cells.
On a whim, I signed up for a kayak excursion in the Sea of Cortéz. I’m a strong swimmer, I reminded my horrified family. I love to sail and I like sleeping under the stars. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was… everything. In a twisted series of events, I got separated from the group with another kayaker who was injured. A freak storm upset my usually solid sense of direction. I spent a night in the middle of nowhere with protein bars, duct tape, and a bleeding, frightened stranger. And then I had the longest day of my life, paddling like the zombies were chasing me to get back to base camp.
You go into a trance out there on the water, or at least I do. You put sunbeams in your backpack for later. You wrap watery greens around your throat like emerald necklaces. The sea creatures whisper to you. Fish talk gibberish but it swims around your brain stem and you answer confidently. The clocks are dead but your life keeps ticking.
When they lifted me out of the kayak, my legs were so swollen and stiff that I could barely feel them. The full weight of four and a half decades drove me into the sand and I wept until I couldn’t breathe for my lost child, for my lost mother, for my un-lived life.
I was a total cliché. A Lifetime Movie of the Week. But somehow, in that blistering sun, I’d dropped my frayed, battered baton to the bottom of the Sea of Cortéz. My forties and my running days were over.
I’m turning 60 soon and I’m taking my gap year. The kids are grown and the sun is calling. I’m going to sail through the Panama Canal, around Madagascar, and up the Mediterranean. Then I’ll go who knows where else.
I used to regret not having done it sooner but not anymore. I left all my regrets on that gritty beach in Baja. Besides, anguish weighs more than you think. It’s better to cast it into the sea and use the space in my pack for an extra bottle of Glenmorangie.
Steinbeck was right, you know. You just keep going and screw how it sounds. You just don’t ever stop. And then you’ll look up one day and see the whole damn story, as clear as the Blue Lagoon.